West Lafayette, Indiana has been a tough place to play for Ohio State in recent history, and it looks like the Buckeyes could be in for a test once again when they return to Ross-Ade Stadium to play Purdue this Saturday (7:30 p.m., ABC).
Ohio State’s defense has looked vulnerable all season, which could spell trouble against the Boilermakers, who enter this week ranked 10th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense, with 510.2 yards gained per game, while also averaging 33.5 points per game (42nd in the FBS).
Purdue lost its first three games of the season against Northwestern (31-27), Eastern Michigan (20-19) and Missouri (40-37), but has since rattled off three wins in a row against Boston College (30-13), Nebraska (42-28) and Illinois (46-7) to improve to .500 going into this weekend’s contest.
The Boilermakers have had issues on defense, allowing more than 400 yards in four of their six games, including 608 yards to Missouri and 582 yards to Nebraska.
Nonetheless, Purdue has enough playmakers on both sides of the ball that it is a team Ohio State cannot take lightly – especially when considering that the Buckeyes haven’t been able to make easy work of their last two games against Minnesota and Indiana, and that they will be playing at Ross-Ade Stadium, where they have won just four of their last seven games dating back to 2000.
We take a closer look at the Boilermakers’ roster now.
11 David Blough – 6-1, 205, Redshirt Senior
While 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior Elijah Sindelar began the year as Purdue’s starting quarterback, he hasn’t played since the Boilermakers’ second game of the season, as the more experienced Blough has asserted himself as the team’s top signal-caller over the past four weeks.
While he isn’t as physically gifted as Sindelar, Blough is an accurate passer who handles himself well under pressure, has good mobility and is highly regarded as a team leader.
Blough had already started 25 games over the past three years prior to this season, but so far this year, he’s playing the best football of his career to date. Blough has completed 68.4 percent of his passes this season for 9.1 yards per attempt (128-of-187 for 1,695 yards) and 10 touchdowns with only two interceptions, good for the second-best quarterback rating in the Big Ten (160.1) behind Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins. Blough also has five runs of 10-plus yards this season and two rushing touchdowns.
1 D.J. Knox – 5-7, 210, Redshirt Senior
8 Markell Jones – 5-11, 210, Senior
Knox isn’t tall, but he’s a shifty back with great quickness, while also well-built for his small frame and able to bounce off of contact. He leads the Boilermakers with 540 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 87 carries this year, along with nine catches for 45 yards.
Jones, who led the Boilermakers in rushing the past three years, has taken a backseat to Knox this season but still rotates in regularly off the bench. Jones doesn’t have quite the same level of speed and agility as Knox, but he’s still quick enough to make people miss and strong enough to shed tackles. Jones has gained 296 yards and scored two touchdowns on 50 carries and caught seven passes for 48 yards and another touchdown this season.
4 Rondale Moore – 5-9, 175, Freshman
7 Isaac Zico – 6-1, 200, Senior
12 Jared Sparks – 6-1, 210, Sophomore OR 9 Terry Wright – 5-11, 180, Senior
A four-star true freshman who was also recruited by Ohio State, Moore has emerged as the breakthrough star of Purdue’s offense this season, catching 45 passes for 558 yards – both second-most among all Big Ten receivers – for five touchdowns.
An explosive athlete with speed and agility that gives him the potential to break free from any defense for a home-run play, Moore has also run the ball nine times for 139 yards and a touchdown, returned 13 kickoffs for 269 yards and six punt returns for 41 yards. Moore’s big-play ability should be a huge focus of Ohio State’s game planning on both defense and special teams this week.
While Moore lines up primarily in the slot, Zico gives the Boilermakers another athletic weapon on the outside who has been a breakout playmaker this season. The Georgia Military College transfer has shown the speed to make big plays downfield, while also proving to be a solid option on out routes in the short and intermediate passing game. He’s caught 20 passes for 399 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Sparks and Wright both see regular playing time at the other outside receiver spot. Sparks has started every game for the Boilermakers and caught 20 passes for 178 yards, but Wright has come in off the bench to catch 12 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns.
Jackson Anthrop (5-11, 185, sophomore) entered the season as Purdue’s leading receiver from last year, catching 47 passes for 423 yards and five touchdowns in 2017, but he’s played only sparingly with the emergence of Moore, catching just five passes for 29 yards.
88 Cole Herdman – 6-4, 245, Redshirt Senior OR 89 Brycen Hopkins – 6-5, 245, Junior
While covering tight ends is one area in which Ohio State’s defense has actually performed better this season than it was last season, Purdue’s tight ends might be the best tight ends – particularly in the passing game – that the Buckeyes have faced yet this year.
Both Herdman and Hopkins are good athletes for their size with proven receiving skills, making them real playmaking threats over the middle of the field. Hopkins has 19 receptions for 352 yards and two touchdowns this season; Herdman has only seven receptions for 93 yards this year, but 80 catches for 907 yards and eight touchdowns over the course of his Purdue career.
The Boilermakers’ two tight ends who play regularly are also effective run blockers, particularly Herdman. It is uncertain whether Herdman will be full-go for this week’s game, however, after he missed this past Saturday’s game against Illinois while recovering from stingers.
78 Grant Hermanns – 6-7, 290, Sophomore
75 Shane Evans – 6-4, 310, Senior
53 Kirk Barron – 6-2, 300, Redshirt Senior
64 Dennis Edwards – 6-1, 305, Redshirt Senior
79 Matt McCann – 6-6, 300, Junior
Purdue’s offensive line has looked shaky in pass protection this season, particularly on the edges. The Boilermakers have allowed opponents to put a good amount of pressure on the quarterback, including 12 sacks.
That said, the Boilermakers’ offensive line is an experienced group; Evans, Barron and McCann are all returning starters from 2017, Hermanns started games in 2016 before missing the 2017 season with a torn ACL and Edwards was a three-year starter at Western Kentucky before arriving in West Lafayette as a graduate transfer.
Run blocking is the strength of this group, which has led the way for the Boilermakers to run for 5.25 yards per carry this season, the second-best average in the Big Ten. Barron, a third-year starter who was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2017, anchors the unit.
92 Giovanni Reviere – 6-5, 270, Redshirt Freshman
98 Kai Higgins – 6-4, 255, Junior
Reviere and Higgins are both bigger defensive ends who are better run-stoppers than they are pass-rushers. Both defensive ends do a solid job holding their lanes on their edge, but each has only one sack this year. Higgins has shown an ability to make plays on the ball when he has opportunities, though, intercepting a pair of passes this season and recording an additional pass breakup.
9 Lorenzo Neal – 6-3, 315, Junior
44 Anthony Watts – 6-4, 295, Sophomore
Neal, whose father also named Lorenzo Neal was a fullback in the NFL for 16 years, is the star of Purdue’s defensive line. Neal has optimal physical attribute for a nose tackle, offering great athleticism for his size, and shows an ability to be disruptive in the backfield, with 13 total tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup this season.
Watts is also a good athlete for the position who shows good ability to make plays from his defensive tackle spot, leading all Purdue defensive linemen with 17 tackles this season, including 1.5 tackles for loss, plus an interception and two additional pass breakups.
These defensive tackles will give up their lanes at times, allowing opponents to run up the middle on them, but they’re aggressive defenders who will look to get around blocks and make plays.
21 Markus Bailey – 6-1, 240, Junior
46 Cornel Jones – 6-2, 240, Sophomore
55 Derrick Barnes – 6-1, 240, Sophomore
Bailey, a Columbus native from Hilliard Davidson High School, is the leader of Purdue’s defense. After leading the team with 97 tackles in 2016 and recording 89 tackles in 2017, Bailey has been productive once again this year, recording 43 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one pass breakup and one forced fumble in the Boilermakers’ first six games. He’s a versatile linebacker who will often line up on the edge, but is also a sound tackler in space and can drop back into coverage as called upon.
The breakout playmaker on Purdue’s defense this season has been Jones, who has recorded 40 total tackles and a team-high 11 tackles for loss, with 3.5 sacks, from his middle linebacker spot this season. Barnes has also been productive, recording 42 total tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks.
Purdue often uses its linebackers as pass-rushers on the edge, and all three of these linebackers will regularly play near the line of scrimmage and attack the backfield looking to come up with stops, which they’ve all proven capable of doing so this year.
14 Antonio Blackmon – 6-0, 195, Redshirt Senior
2 Kenneth Major – 6-0, 195, Redshirt Freshman OR 24 Tim Cason – 6-0, 195, Redshirt Senior
A walk-on who was worked his way up Purdue’s depth chart since joining the team in 2015, Blackmon has emerged as the Boilermakers’ top cornerback this season and has provided solid play while starting every game. He’s recorded 33 total tackles, and interception and three pass breakups so far this year.
Fellow fifth-year senior Cason began the year as Purdue’s other starting cornerback, but he’s been more inconsistent in his play. Major has started each of the Boilermakers’ two best defensive games – against Boston College and Illinois – and has taken advantage of his opportunities in the lineup, recording a team-high three interceptions to go along with 18 total tackles and two pass breakups. It would seem likely that Major will continue to start against Ohio State on Saturday, but both cornerbacks should see regular playing time.
27 Navon Mosley – 6-0, 195, Junior (Free Safety)
41 Jacob Thieneman – 6-1, 215, Redshirt Senior (Strong Safety)
Thieneman is the most active player on Purdue’s defense, having recorded a team-high 45 total tackles this season including 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, while he has also recorded three pass breakups and a blocked field goal. A second-year starter who also began his Purdue career as a walk-on, Thieneman demonstrates the range and instinctiveness to make plays all over the field.
Mosley is an active player on the back end, recording 40 total tackles this season. But while both of these safeties will make plays, they can be inconsistent in coverage, and opponents have taken advantage, throwing for an average of 267.5 passing yards per game on the Boilermakers.
13 Spencer Evans – 6-1, 200, Senior (Kicker)
31 Joe Schopper – 6-0, 205, Senior (Punter)
After splitting kicks with J.D. Dellinger last season, Evans has moved ahead of Dellinger on the depth chart to seize the kicking job for himself this year, making 11 of 14 field goal attempts and 17 of 20 extra points. He hasn’t made any field goals longer than 38 yards this season, however, so if the Buckeyes can keep the Boilermakers out of the red zone, they’ll have a good shot at keeping points off the board.
Schopper was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2017 and is in his fourth year as Purdue’s starting punter. He’s having his best season to date so far this year, averaging a career-high 42.4 yards per punt, the fourth-best average in the conference.
Purdue’s offense has been productive all season, gaining at least 372 yards in every game and at least 472 yards in all but one game, and if Ohio State’s defense doesn’t clean up the issues it has had with allowing big plays all season, another big day for the Boilermakers could be in store for Saturday.
Moore is one of the most dangerous playmakers Ohio State will face all season, while Knox and Jones can create big plays by making defenders miss in space and Zico, Herdman and Hopkins are also among the players who give Blough a wide variety of weapons in the passing game.
The Boilermakers’ defense has been much shakier this season, particularly against the pass, which could spell trouble for the home team with Haskins and the Buckeyes – who currently lead the nation in passing yards (2,600), passing touchdowns (29) and completion percentage (73.3) – coming to town. They’re not dominant against the run, either, which could leave the door open for the Buckeyes to get their struggling running game on track.
Altogether, though, the Boilermakers look like a stronger opponent than both Minnesota and Indiana – who both gave the Buckeyes more trouble than expected the past two weeks – and Ohio State has to travel to their place to play them. Despite its struggles early in the season, Purdue has the potential to push for an upset – or at least keep things too close for comfort – if the Buckeyes don’t bring their A-game to West Lafayette.